Frankfurt Press Conference 21.7.92
By Axel Wünsch and Aad Hoogesteger
T'Mershi Duween, #26, September 1992
Another WüHo production, it says here, as our intrepid reporters Axel Wünsch and Aad Hoogesteger lagged their way into the press conference for the launch of 'The Yellow Shark'. Thanks to Axel for sending over the video and to Spencer for doing me an audio copy, due to absence of vid player here at T'Mershi Acres. Transcribed and edited by the Freditor.
The conference started with Andreas Mölich-Zebhauser, the director of the Ensemble Modern telling the assembled throng about the piece and its genesis, and the financial problems enjoyed by the Ensemble, none of which is here as I couldn't be bothered to translate it. Then there was a chat (not on the vid) given by the guy in charge of the Frankfurt Fest, then Uncle Frank took questions from the audience. These ran as follows:
Will there be a studio recording of 'The Yellow Shark'?
No, we will record it only live. This you must understand: 'The Yellow Shark' is the name of the evening, not the name of a composition.
Is there a musical connection between 'Phaze Three' and 'The Yellow Shark'?
One of the pieces that will be in the evening is a piece on tape called 'Beat The Reaper' which is what the dancers will dance to, and this is included in 'Phaze Three'.
What compositional techniques did you use? The Synclavier or a piano?
It's done in a number of ways. There's no mathematical formula that goes into the Synclavier which then spits out the composition. It doesn't work that way. You can use the machine as a sequencer or you can play parts on the keyboard and then edit what you play, or you can enter the information with an octopad or you can type the notes directly onto something that looks like music stave on the screen. I use all different ways.
Will there be a CD of the live performance?
Two. All the shows in the concert series will be recorded live. Because of the improvisation that takes place every night, there will be something different every night, so we think that by the time all the material has been collected, it will be enough for two CDs. They'll be out next year.
Can we expect some Conceptual Continuity clues in this piece?
There is definitely some in there.
What makes the production so expensive? Is it your participation or what?
Let's just say that there are a lot of different elements to the production and I'm one of them. One of the reasons it's expensive is because it's an international operation. If you just total up all the airplane tickets back and forth just to co-ordinate this, you'd be shocked.
Is this the end of your career as a rock and roll musician?
I hope so (laughter). I'm fifty-one and I'd better be looking for another job.
Is there any connection between the music and other parts of the reality outside the music? Is it a collage of other music outside of your compositions?
Think of the evening as an evening of entertainment with a lot of different aspects to it. One of the pieces that will be included is called 'Outrage At Valdez' which was originally used as the theme music in a Cousteau Society documentary about the oil-spill in Alaska. That's as close as you get to film music.
Is the yellow shark anything to do with the white shark or the mudshark?
I think the yellow shark pretty much exists in Andreas' imagination. As you can see, this is not a shark (check out the photo elsewhere this issue). It looks more like a marlin.
You've had a lot of problems in performing modern compositions. Doesn't it make you sad when you think about them, the difficulties with the LSO or at Vienna?
It doesn't make me sad, but I'm glad I don't have to worry about that aspect any more because one thing that can be said about the Ensemble Modern is that there hasn't been anything really that I've presented to them which they can't play. And that's amazing. (laughter)
Can you tell us more about the music? Is it a fully-formed composition with more written sections?
There's all kinds of different compositions. Remember, 'The Yellow Shark' is the name of the evening, not the composition. Within the evening there are different styles of writing, some of them with complicated rhythms – many of these – and other material with a steady beat, and then some with no beat at all.
And you'll be working with your special way of leading an orchestra?
On two occasions during the concert. All the rest of the problems of the music Peter gets to take care of. I've planned that at each of the concerts there will be two improvisations that have a theme, maybe even three as I just thought of another one today that maybe I'll work out this afternoon. One of the pieces is called 'Food Gathering In Post-Industrial America'. It's programme music in the old-fashioned sense. They used to write overtures about thunderstorms and stuff. As I'm an American composer, I have to write about the world that I come from. And America is now moving into its post-industrial phase, a country that is now basically concerned with consuming products that other people make and providing services for each other; in other words a lot of lawyers and a lot of hamburger flippers, who will become lawyers a bit later (laughter). The texture of the piece is based on little acts of desperation, looking for things to eat. Every once in a while, something is found for the musicians who go 'Mmm...'
Is there also a social impact because of the starving people in New York compared to the rich?
I don't think that either of those two constituencies will ever hear the piece, so it will have no impact on them. (laughter)
Do you think of your fans (?) during the more unpopular musical compositions?
I think you shouldn't decide, if you're a fan, whether you are being provided with popular or unpopular compositions. I'll provide you with something to amuse you and if it amuses you, then like it; if you don't, then there's Michael Jackson.
Have you thought about living in Europe?
Yes, I've thought about it, but since I can speak only English, it would make my life very complicated.
Is the relationship between lawyers and hamburger flippers the same as between hamburger eaters and sharks? They both eat without chewing.
The important thing is that they both continue to eat, no matter what.
Then sharks can eat hamburgers too.
Sharks can eat tin cans. But they have to keep on swimming or they die.
What do you think about black hip-hop and rap music?"
I'm not a consumer of it. I'm not a dancing kind of a guy. I think that for people that like that kind of music, I'm glad it's there, but I don't listen to it.
Do you think there is any difference between rock and roll music and rock and roll performances? You have criticised the average rock and roll performance.
I criticise everything. I think that the main thing that's lacking in rock and roll performance today is there's very little actual performance. So much of it is stored on tape or sequencers and other artificial things. The role of the competent musician in every form of music seems to be going down and down.
Have you seen or heard recordings of the 'Zappa's Universe' shows?
No, but I think they're being released very soon.
Do you have any influence on the choreography of the ballet?
No. I can only make suggestions as to what they might dance to. I'm always free to open my mouth, but whether it will have any results, I don't know. I won't interface with the dancers until they come here to rehearse in September. I've met with the choreographer before and I've seen video-tapes of the group. They'll probably be doing two or three numbers in the show, one piece for tape and at least one with the Ensemble.
Do you plan any more rock releases?
Maybe. My first priority for releases include 'Phaze Three' and these two CDs from 'The Yellow Shark' concerts.
What's 'Phaze Three'?
It's an album of Synclavier music. It's actually called 'Civilization Phaze III'. (So much for 'Lumpy Gravy' -Ed)
You mentioned 'Phaze Three' a couple of years ago. What have you changed musically?
It takes years to do the Synclavier pieces.
How will you connect the Synclavier sound with that of the Ensemble?
I don't know. We'll try some experiments at the rehearsals in September, when all the machinery is together. If possible, there'll be some co-ordination but most likely not.
Will the performances of 'The Yellow Shark' be basically the same except for the improvisations?
Yes, because the music is so complicated, you don't really have the option of doing a different programme every night like I would do with a rock and roll band. The Ensemble has to learn exactly what's on the paper, for a certain amount of material, and there's no chance they could learn so much that they could play a different show each night.
Could you explain in what way does the Ensemble Modern influence your composition?
When they came to visit me in LA last year, I had a chance to see individually what the players could do, what their specialities were. When you know what a musician can do, it helps when you're writing the piece. I suspect that there's not another group that could play this. (Long pause) Oh, I can see this is going to be a really good, short press conference. Thank you very much ladies and gentlemen and goodnight ...
What are your plans in the future when this is over?
I have to finish the albums and see what happens then.
When the Ensemble Modern came to you with the idea, what was your first reaction?
I had heard some of the CDs they had made of Kurt Weill, and I thought they were unbelievable. I would be very happy to have the opportunity to work with a group that can play that. It was exciting to do it.
Are you still thinking of pursuing a political career?
No, my health is not good enough for that.
What about your health? I read you have cancer.
Yep, you read right.
- (There then follows lots of German stuff, mostly aimed at the Ensemble people on stage. But then, just as I was getting bored ...)
Why are you sceptical about the show? (Crap translation of a German question.)
My scepticism about the project has nothing to do with the Ensemble. My scepticism is about the mechanics of moving a show this complicated from place to place when we have to take it to Berlin. It's going to be very difficult to re-stage it in those places because the rooms are so different. That's my main concern. I know the Ensemble will be able to play it. When did I realise it was feasible to do this project? Maybe about the third or fourth day of the rehearsals last year. It takes a little while, but I'm convinced that what they will be able to do in the concert will surprise everybody.
What has to be changed in the show to make it difficult to move?
The programme is being amplified by a six channel PA system and the shape of the room in Frankfurt is very different from the Berlin Philharmonie and also the one in Vienna. It's a mechanical problem. Where do you put the six speakers? And how much time do you have to set it up to make sure that the sound system is working properly? As I understand it, we have a limited time to load in and test all the equipment in Berlin. That's my biggest worry right now.
Will we ever hear 'Sinister Footwear' played by an orchestra?
It was supposed to be performed during the Festival this time, but I understand the orchestra decided there was some problem and they couldn't do it.
Was it your idea to have dance in the show?
Will you make a video of the dance?
It's not likely. The piece is too long. Besides, I don't know of any video programme that would show anything like this.
You're not going to make a home video of it?
Eventually yes. Next year some time.
(Something incomprehensible about John Cage)
Any time you're dealing with the improvisational medium, you have to bow your head to John Cage, because he has to be the master of taking nothing and making something out of it. If you are going to improvise, you're always working in his territory. Which is not to say that the improvisations that we'll be doing will sound like John Cage compositions, but there is always that special element of chance that he's always dealt with.
In recent years, you have been fighting against censorship in rock. Is that struggle still going on? What are the next steps?
I don't think there's much more that can be done especially if Mr. and Mrs. Gore end up being swept into the White House along with Slick Willy. I think that whatever battle there was has probably already been lost.
Do you think there's any progress in America from the Sixties up to now?
I think that the curve went something like this (hand describes large descending arc). If you believe in downwards progress, we have a lot.
What do you think of the fight between Clinton and Bush?
I don't trust either of them. Once again it's the choice between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. (laughter) You never have that choice here? (more laughter, with cries of 'Always, always' from good ol' Axel)
(On which depressing note, the press conference was brought to a close and the assembled hordes fell on the beer and food in the foyer.)